Science Spotlight

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  • July 3, 2020

CDFW is a department with about 1,200 employees in scientific classifications, spread from Yreka in the north to Blythe in the southeast. Their expertise spans a broad spectrum of subjects – wildlife management, fisheries management, marine issues, habitat conservation and restoration, veterinary science, pathology, genetics, invasive species and so much more.

Coordinating the efforts of a department with such a wide range of specialties is no small task. But back in 2006, CDFW released its Strategic Initiative, which laid the groundwork to do just that. The document outlined the strategies and actions that the department should take in order to increase its effectiveness across the board. One specific goal was to expand the department’s scientific capacity – to establish best standards and practices, to improve access to scientific literature, and heighten visibility and awareness of scientific efforts.

CDFW Science Institute was launched in May 2012 as the means to accomplish those goals. Initially, it was led by a team of dedicated scientist that put the Science Institute on the map with a public website, a scientific lecture series, science symposium, policy and guidance documents on scientific practice, and ultimately hiring a Science Institute Lead in 2018. Since then, the Institute has grown to include a committed scientific staff of five employees who work to support CDFW’s scientists and scientific efforts.

CDFW’s Science Advisor and Science Institute Lead, Christina Sloop, points out that climate change and biodiversity conservation are two issues that affect all facets of the department -- yet specific resources on these topics are not readily available to many field staff. The Science Institute employs staff who are specifically trained to advise on these topics, and can provide a statewide, long-term perspective.

“We are ready to provide guidance and help connect the dots when climate change or biodiversity conservation principles could be incorporated into a study or a project,” Sloop explains. “We play a departmentwide facilitation role, so CDFW’s scientists and scientific programs can better respond to these challenges and be as efficient as possible as they work to support our important mission.”

CDFW recently published the link opens in new windowScience Institute Progress Report 2018-2019 (PDF), which highlights the tools developed so far. The 2020-2025 Science Institute Strategic Action Plan will be released this summer. This document reflects input from the CDFW science community and lays out goals and strategies to guide the Science Institute’s priority actions in the next five years. Each year, the plan will be reassessed, reevaluated and updated as necessary, in order to keep one step ahead of current challenges. “Our goal is to be proactive and anticipatory rather than reactionary,” Sloop said. “We’ll always be on the lookout for new ways to build capacity, promote transparency and foster scientific excellence.”

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Media Contact:
Kirsten Macintyre, CDFW Communications, (916) 804-1714

Categories: Science Spotlight
  • December 14, 2018

Brown haired woman wearing glasses, white laboratory coat and white gloves in front of machine in laboratory
Kelly McCulloh loads evidence samples onto a DNA extraction robot.

Brown haired woman in white laboratory coat and white gloves holding pipette standing at counter in laboratory
Jillian Adkins prepares samples for DNA extraction.

Brown haired woman in white laboratory coat and white gloves sitting at desk with microscope and small tool in hand.
Erin Meredith uses a dissecting microscope to isolate hair roots for nuclear DNA extraction.

Long haired woman in white laboratory coat and blue gloves standing at laboratory machine with glass window partially lowered.
Ashley Spicer prepares a Polymerase chain reaction used in DNA sequencing.

If they weren’t so busy or their work wasn’t so mission-critical, you might find CDFW’s Wildlife Forensics Laboratory team on loan to the California Department of Education.

The four-person scientific team is all women with undergraduate and advanced degrees in biochemistry, genetics, molecular biology and forensic science.

Jillian Adkins, Kelly McCulloh, Erin Meredith and Ashley Spicer would be stars of state education initiatives to attract more girls to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields. They would be celebrated at school tours, asked to provide their personal stories at education conferences and inspirational messages in science classrooms across the state.

Instead, this team works mostly out of the spotlight, their scientific analysis critical to CDFW’s law enforcement mission to protect California’s natural resources and provide public safety. Increasingly, CDFW’s Wildlife Forensics Laboratory is being counted on to protect some of the most sensitive animal species on the planet.

“We just don’t lose these cases supported by forensic evidence. It’s amazing,” said Tony Warrington, a recently retired assistant chief who has managed CDFW’s crime lab for more than a decade. “Our forensic specialists do a fantastic job utilizing advanced scientific methods to support wildlife officers with poaching investigations and public safety wildlife incidents.”

Meredith, a senior wildlife forensic specialist with nearly 20 years at the lab, said the mere suggestion by a wildlife officer of sending evidence in for DNA analysis will sometimes prompt poachers to confess to their crimes. The lab is one of only about 10 wildlife forensic labs in the nation, giving CDFW wildlife officers a major crime-fighting assist. Every CDFW wildlife officer can access the lab, which processes evidence in about 100 criminal cases every year.

The white lab coats, antiseptic setting, high-tech equipment and talk of DNA sequencing invite comparisons to “CSI” – Crime Scene Investigations – the long-running night-time television drama that firmly implanted forensics in the public consciousness.

“My joke is always that human forensics is boring – you only work on one species,” Meredith said. “With wildlife, the possibilities are essentially endless.”

First established in the 1970s, CDFW’s Wildlife Forensics Laboratory has taken on a more prominent role with advances in genetic research and technology and the widespread acceptance of forensic evidence in the court system.

“If there’s blood on a knife, not only can we tell whether it’s from a deer, we can also tell whether it’s from a doe or a buck,” Meredith said. “We can tell if the blood on the knife originated from the same deer or evidence taken from a kill site or meat in a suspect’s freezer.”

Said Adkins, “DNA evidence has been a game-changer in determining guilt or innocence – in both people and wildlife.” Adkins’ work in providing quick turnaround of DNA samples allows wildlife officers to use the results to make critical enforcement decisions.

CDFW’s Wildlife Forensics Lab plays a key role in public safety and animal attacks that may involve great white sharks, coyotes, bears or mountain lions. With even minimal DNA evidence, offending species and animals can be identified with certainty in most instances.

“We literally free the innocent – and it’s happened a number of times,” Meredith said. “Our wildlife officers may trap what they think is the guilty bear, draw its blood and bring it to the lab for comparison with saliva from a bite wound or even a scratch mark on the victim. And if that DNA is not a match, that bear gets released.”

Retired assistant chief Warrington said, “This lab completely changed the way we deal with public safety wildlife. DNA matching has allowed CDFW to protect the innocent and positively identify the offending animal in these cases – a big step forward in protecting California’s wildlife.”

The lab marked another milestone in 2015 with the adoption of Assembly Bill 96, which closed a loophole in the state’s ban on ivory and made it illegal to purchase, sell, possess with intent to sell or import with intent to sell ivory or rhinoceros horn – with limited exceptions.

The legislation tasked a state wildlife agency with helping to combat the global ivory trade in order to protect ivory bearing species from poaching, exploitation and extinction worldwide. AB 96 provided funding for CDFW’s Wildlife Forensics Lab to add a fourth scientist in McCulloh.

McCulloh arrived with a master’s degree in forensic science from UC Davis. She has pioneered California’s genetics test for ivory products. It’s so accurate, it can distinguish African elephant ivory from Asian elephant ivory and even ivory from a long-extinct woolly mammoth.

Spicer, a native of British Columbia with degrees in biochemistry and forensic science, specializes in the physical characteristics of ivory that distinguish it among the many different ivory-bearing species – from elephant and hippopotamus to sperm whale and warthog – and also from non-ivory products such as synthetic ivory or plastics made to look like ivory. 
Spicer personally has worked on 17 of the 18 criminal ivory cases that have come through the lab since AB 96 was enacted. Her work has included serving as an expert witness and testifying at trial.

The lab’s contributions were link opens in new tab or windowheralded recently in the conviction of a Los Angeles County business owner on charges of selling two ivory tusks from Arctic narwhal whales. The tusks measured 79 and 89 inches long.

CDFW’s forensic scientists don’t necessarily mind all the newfound recognition – as long as the focus remains on their work.

Said Spicer, “We are really committed to the highest standards and ideals of science.”

YouTube Video Link: link opens in new tab or windowhttps://youtu.be/4KS4e3ILKOw

CDFW Photos. Top Photo: The four-woman forensics team.

Categories: Wildlife Research
  • October 12, 2018

Trail cam photo of black bear in wooded area approaching barbed wire fence
Researchers built 90 hair-snare stations designed to pull a small hair sample from black bears that cross the snares.

Map with legend
The Warner Mountains Black Bear Project study area (blue boundary) and layout of hair-snare grids (yellow squares) in northeastern California. The upper-left inset shows the southernmost hair snare grid and layout of hair-snare locations (red circles). Density estimates and information on habitat from within the 10 grids will help researchers estimate overall black bear abundance across the entire study area.

California’s black bear population is healthy and growing, with an estimated 35,000 animals, up from an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 in 1982. But how do wildlife biologists determine these figures – and why are they important?

Deep in the Warner Mountains in Lassen and Modoc counties CDFW is just completing the first year of a study of black bears. The lead scientist, Steffen Peterson, explained that anecdotal evidence in recent years – including increased bear sightings by both field scientists and everyday citizens, as well as an increased number of requests for depredation permits due to bear-human conflicts – seemed to indicate that the population of black bears in the Warner Mountains was booming and this area would be ideal for scientific research.

According to Peterson, the two primary objectives of the Warner Mountains Black Bear Project are to estimate black bear abundance in the study area and to determine how black bears use the landscape. This kind of information on black bear demography and space use is essential for wildlife managers to make scientifically sound bear management decisions for this region of California.

CDFW is using a genetic capture-recapture method to estimate the population size. Usually, this involves physically capturing an animal, marking it in some way and releasing it. But this particular study achieves the same goal with non-invasive techniques – specifically by using hair snares, which cause relatively little stress or harm to the animals. Hair snares have been used on many furbearing species to determine presence, to calculate a minimum absolute count of individuals present, or to estimate total population size by collecting a DNA sample from individuals without physically capturing the animal. Unique repetitive sequences, known as microsatellites, within the DNA sample serve as individual identifiers, making it possible to know when and where each unique animal was present.

In addition, because the DNA located within roots of mammalian hair can identify species, sex, and individuality, this genetic technique is ideal for researchers to estimate abundance as well as obtain information on demographics and genetic diversity.

Peterson, a CDFW scientific aid and a Humboldt State University graduate student, and other researchers built 90 hair-snare stations distributed across 10 sampling grids that that are designed to pull a small hair sample from bears that cross the snares.

The contraption consists of two parallel strands of barbed wire stretched around a cluster of three or more trees, one about eight inches off the ground and the other about 20 inches off the ground. This forms a barbed-wire “corral” in which researchers place a pile of logs drizzled with fish oil. The oil acts as an attractant to black bears, who have both a finely attuned sense of smell and a profound love of fish. At two thirds of the hair-snare stations, researchers placed a trail-camera to help verify the effectiveness of the snares at capturing hair samples when a bear is present. The trail photos also provide demographic (cub-adult ratio) information on bears within the study area.

“The use of hair-snares to collect genetic data for abundance and density estimates has become the gold standard for American black bear,” said Peterson. “The hope is for the bear to cross between the two strands of barbed wire, although some of our video footage from the trail cameras shows bears crossing – even jumping, in some cases –  over the wire. Because bears are big, robust animals, for the most part they pay little mind to the barbs and typically cross them, leaving us a nice big clump of hair. Bears are the ideal critter for hair-snares in this way.”

Although Peterson stressed that it is much too soon in the study process to draw conclusions about the number of black bears living on the grid, initial results indicate that, at a bare minimum, black bears are certainly roaming throughout the study area.

During a 50-day hair collection period that took place this summer, black bears were detected in all of the grids created in the study area that encompasses roughly 600 square miles of high desert terrain; researchers collected 469 samples of hair in all at 57 of the 90 hair-snare locations.

“Long story short, we are pleased by the amount of detections observed during our data collection,” Peterson said. “Good detections will strengthen our ability to estimate density within each grid which will allow us to more reliably estimate abundance off the grid – i.e., the Warner Mountain study area as a whole.”

Peterson is now set to begin the DNA analysis phase on the samples collected. This will allow him to determine precisely how many individual bears left hair behind (bears often leave more than one sample at a snare location and some individuals are repeat visitors), as well as information on gender and habitat use, including the movement of bears across the study area.

Next summer, project staff will capture and collar 12 adult black bear with research collars, which will record hourly GPS locations of the bears as they move across the landscape, providing information on how they use the landscape, including seasonal habitat preferences and, during the winter hibernation period, where bears den.

“This information will greatly improve our knowledge of how bears use these high desert ecosystems, characteristic of the Great Basin, and guide future land management in this region,” Peterson said.

The project is expected to continue for another two to three years. ###

CDFW Photos. Top Photo: Emily Monfort, a CDFW scientific aid, carefully removes black bear hair from barbed wire at a hair-snare location. The DNA from this clump of hair will be examined in the laboratory to determine the sex and genetic identity of the black bear that crossed this wire.  Photo credit Korrina Domingo (CDFW).

Categories: Wildlife Research